The group strides into a weather-beaten tavern on the docks of a run-down wharf. The barkeep glances down at the muscle-bound dwarf fighter. “By Hargrim’s beard, that’s a wicked scar, friend!” he exclaims. The warrior nods back at him. “Got it off a drow shaman rumored to be hiding near these parts. We need a guide up to the Aeriepeak Ranges; anyone familiar with those mountains come to mind?”
The setting for an adventure or a campaign can be just as important as the enemies and friends the group makes along their journeys. It serves as a backdrop and a foundation, coloring the events and interactions described by the DM and offering a context to tie things together. The setting holds the answers to many of the questions implied by even the simplest of encounters. Looking at the introduction above, there’s any number of questions the players could pose their DM:
- How long have the town and tavern been there?
- What happened to leave this wharf in such of state of neglect and decay?
- Who’s Hargrim and what’s up with his beard?
- Are drow usually associated with shamanic magic?
- What’s special about the Aeriepeaks? How did they get there? Where did the name come from?
As a DM, you can just make up these answers on the fly – but for anything other than a one-shot adventure, you’ll probably want to prepare some background information ahead of time. A setting generally requires a large body of information, and trying to improvise all of it tends to be an exercise in futility and frustration.
That being said, the sheer scope of creating a setting can be intimidating, which is why I’ll try to break it down into a few basic stages. Having even just a few underlying facts about the universe can give you some much-needed stability behind the DM screen. You’ll never be able to have every single detail at your fingertips, but even one or two concepts can at least give you a springboard for your flying leaps of storytelling.
Fundamentally, however, the point of a good setting is to give the story a consistent, logical backdrop. Most effective storytelling is a version of either reinforcing or subverting the status quo – which demands that you HAVE a status quo in the first place. Building a good story requires a good foundation.
So let’s get started!
Consider a world (or even just part of one) that you’re familiar with. Try and describe it in just a few sentences, or even a few words. There are a number of ways to do this. Since this world will be viewed through the eyes of the main characters in your story, try to describe it from their perspective.
- Magic is everywhere, if you know where to look. But some try to use it for evil, and I have to resist them at all costs. (Harry Potter)
- The world is ancient, with secrets and power hidden in many places. I may be a simple person, but my choices can affect the course of history. (The Lord of the Rings)
- The universe is vast and filled with beings of greater technological power than ourselves. We’ve joined a larger world and must find our place within it… or be destroyed. (Stargate SG-1)
The description should be contemporary to the story you plan to tell. The process of worldbuilding will take you from the earliest points of existence to the moment of your current description. It’s the ultimate answer to the question of “How did we get here?”
It isn’t an easy question to answer (for further reading, see: most of the world’s religions). Fortunately, as the DM, you’re effectively omniscient. You get to decide what the answers are. Let’s dig into some of the sub-questions that may come into play as you answer it.
Science vs. Religion
Is there a God?
This can form the basis for an entire campaign, to be honest, but from a tabletop RPG perspective, the existence of god(s) is usually a foregone conclusion. Otherwise, all those clerics and paladins have a LOT of explaining to do.
As far as the question of origin and setting goes, however, the existence of a deity or pantheon is usually closely tied to the beginning of a world. And the gods began their great work of Creation is a perfectly legitimate starting point. This is where the cosmological questions start to arise.
So who are they? Are they personally present, or do they form more abstract forces of power? Do they have delineated domains, or are they just mega-powered immortal people?
Alternatively, the Big Magic Bang is always a good place to begin as well – perhaps the world predates the gods. There’s a delightful formula of Magic + Natural Selection = Divinity that can form the basis for a pantheon. Mortals can ascend to godhood, given enough power and the right circumstances. Talk about life goals, right?
Whatever path you choose, determining how the forces of the universe work is necessary as well. Most settings operate on the assumption that the IRL laws of nature prevail unless altered by the supernatural (usually gods and/or magic). Feel free to circumvent that as much as you like, however. If you want a rainforest growing on top of a frigid Himalayan mountain range, go for it – but prepare an explanation. If it wasn’t put there by the Goddess of Strange Trees or a wizard botanist, roll with the science.
“The species is surprisingly large and physically fragile, but has high tolerance for dry conditions, cold temperatures, and thin atmosphere. Scholars theorize that its unique photosynthetic processes work better in the increased intensity of sunlight at higher elevations, which is why you only find it near the tops of the mountains.”
Which brings us to stage two.
What is the planet like?
Most of us have drawn a map or two. Some of us have drawn many. Some of us have drawn far more than would be considered medically advisable WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT DON’T JUDGE ME. Maps are primarily designed as infographics – it’s meant to communicate information, not just look pretty. Now that you’ve decided on the background mechanics at work, it’s time to make some concrete decisions about what does and doesn’t exist.
Making a map is a great way to do that.
Any notes you’ve already made are incredibly helpful at this stage. It sucks to be 80% done with your map and then realize you wanted a desert-nomad centaur culture on the western continent – and you forgot to put the desert in.
The science is helpful here as well. Geographers have hashed out a LOT of what make our planet look the way it does over the last few centuries. If natural processes come into play in your setting, make use of those resources.
For instance, mountains and volcanoes don’t just happen willy-nilly. There’s a reason most of them occur near coastlines of continents. A basic understanding of plate tectonics can be amazingly helpful in creating a setting that makes sense.
Once you’ve got your continents and landscapes down, water comes into play. Water, if you recall, flows downhill.
So now we need to learn about hydrology, erosion, and fluvial dynamics. Water, in turn, shapes the landscape and helps determine what plant life can be supported by a given area. This divides the world into biomes and ecological regions, which then tend to be characterized by particular forms of animal and sentient life. Living beings demand food, water, and shelter/safety – and they tend to settle in places where all three are most easily found.
See how the process goes? One block on top of the previous one, all the way to the player races and beyond – with magic and the gods providing shortcuts where necessary.
Once you have your map, I would recommend NOT showing it to the players. Maps make the world comprehensible and smaller, and if you want your game to have a sense of danger and discovery, keep the players ignorant for a while.
Go back over your map and any notes you’ve created over the process with a critical eye. Look for inconsistencies. Edit where necessary.
Above all, ask yourself “why?”
- Why did the early dwarves found their capital city in that mountain?
- Why does the caravan road run through the forest, rather than around it?
- Why are the elves so drawn to settling on the coasts?
- Why does the line of volcanoes extend so far inland?
If the answer is “I don’t know” or “it just does,” take the time to figure it out. Maybe the volcanoes mark the last ten steps taken by the God of Fire before he was slain in the Primordial Wars. Suddenly those peaks are not just something to fill in an empty gap on your continent – they’re officially Cool Story Shit™ that you can use later.
A Word on Cultures
If you’re making a setting with civilizations (like most of us do), you’ll need to have at least a general idea of how the cultures developed. Cultures can be divided along racial or geographical lines, but each one has a set of beliefs and values that drives its growth. These concepts can frequently be attached to religious systems or philosophical movements. Similar values do not always produce similar cultures, however.
The Norsdadt barbarian tribes value strong leadership, martial prowess, and material prosperity. Fierce raiders and warriors, they periodically burst from their tundra villages to pillage the settlements along the coast, carrying supplies, trophies, and slaves back into the wilderness. Should their warleader fall in battle, a ritual combat takes place over the course of several weeks. Each tribesman pits himself against his fellows until the ultimate victor is revealed and enthroned as the new chieftain-of-chieftains.
Athelstane is a kingdom to the west, steeped in a long tradition of leadership through strength, glory in battle, and security in wealth. The dynasty of kings stretches back centuries, with each crown prince groomed from the cradle to ensure his leadership abilities are without peer. The few failures over the years all suffered unfortunate ‘accidents’, paving the way for a more-apt heir to ascend the throne. Athelstane’s king leads legions of Questing Knights during wartime: all of them noble sons of the kingdom, skilled in lance, shield, and sword over many self-appointed adventures. Added to this chivalrous code, the aristocracy also cultivates a keen grasp of economic understanding, ensuring the continual prosperity of the nobility.
This is just a brief overview of two random cultures. Other questions could easily be raised. How do the peasant classes factor into the fabric of Athelstane? What is the role of women in Norsdadt tribal life? Are there factions in either society discontented with or opposed to the general sentiments of the culture?
Answering these questions can grant an enhanced level of depth to any culture, and once the world is populated, it’s ready for play!
As a DM, you can easily spend months developing a setting. Details of cultural interactions, political intrigue, magically-influenced regions, religious movements, and economic influences can create a truly insane body of information.
The curse of the DM is that only a fraction of the setting will ever be directly encountered by the players, and only a percentage of that will actually catch their interest. When you’ve spent weeks creating the seedy underbelly of Gahvrin’s Watch – complete with smuggling rings, thieves’ guilds, corrupt bureaucrats and a naïve clergy – and the players ignore your hints, buy a few potions, and trot back out to the forest, it’s easy to get discouraged.
One way to minimize this effect is to ensure players have plenty of hooks in the setting itself. Family members and friends are excellent strings to pull. Find something the player wants or needs and bury it under a few layers of setting detail. If Gahvrin’s Watch is where the fun is, make it the only local source for a reagent the wizard needs. Put a valued relative or ex-lover in the crosshairs of the criminal denizens.
Alternatively, enlist your players in the creation of the setting itself. There’s an element of trust needed here, because the process involves you surrendering some of your DMs Divine Mandate and Omnipotence. A cooperative creation system like Dawn of Worlds can be incredibly fun for a group starting out on their first homebrew campaign.
“Hi guys! So I know you’re excited about the new 5E game I’ll be running for you, but would you be up for taking a few hours and playing the gods themselves as we create the world?”
I guarantee the group will lose their shit a few months down the line when they meet a monk from the actual Five Ravens Monastery that your player Michelle founded during the worldbuilding phases.
Keeping It Flexible
No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, and no setting survives the players you put into it. You will forget things, and you will contradict yourself, and that’s okay. Edits, revisions, and retcons happen. Take notes, and remember that exceptions occur everywhere – both in reality and in your game. When your player notices a real error, smile and say “That’s right!”
Then take a few moments to figure out a fix or revise your previous statement.
And keep rolling.